The declines in Ford Motor Company (NYSE:F) stock have been unrelenting. F stock has moved pretty much straight down from post-crisis highs around $17 reached in 2014. Since then, Ford stock has declined every year. It’s now down 21% so far in 2018 — and recently hit its lowest level in almost six years.
Indeed, many of the concerns I’ve cited in the past have come home to roost. Most notably, investors seem reasonably confident that the industry — including Ford — has hit “peak auto.” While stocks like Nvidia Corporation (NASDAQ:NVDA) and even Tesla (NASDAQ:TSLA) are bid up on autonomous driving hopes, legacy players like Ford and General Motors (NYSE:GM) are left behind. Current earnings multiple — 7x forward earnings for F, 6x for GM — suggest the market is pricing both companies as declining businesses.
All that said, I’ve come around to the bull case for F stock this year — too early, admittedly. A slimmed-down Ford can sustain profits for some time to come. I remain more skeptical than most about the pace of autonomous driving development. And Ford still has a chance to at least be a part of the next generation of automobile manufacturing.
Right now, F stock is being written off. But it’s cheap enough that if the bears are right, losses may be minimal. If they’re wrong, the upside could be huge.
The Bear Case for F Stock
Ford is not a stock that an investor can buy just because it’s cheap, or because it offers a 6%-plus dividend. This is an indebted, potentially declining business with huge fixed costs. The Ford Credit side of the business has extensive exposure to repayment risk, particularly if the economy turns.
That kind of business model can see profits plunge rather quickly if demand turns south. And that very well may be the case for Ford — and the industry as a whole. U.S. new car sales declined in 2017. They rose through the first seven months of the year — but are expected to decline again in the second half. Automobile manufacturers have decried recent tariffs, which they argue will raise the price of new cars — and potentially lead consumers to substitute newer used cars.
Longer-term, the concern is “peak auto.” There’s a reasonably strong case that, as far as U.S. unit sales go, 2017 may have been the all-time high. The economy is roaring, and will turn down eventually. Cars are better-made — and last longer. And autonomous driving represents a real risk.
After all, widespread availability of self-driving cars would limit total production — because consumers could rent the cars like taxis instead of paying personally for maintenance and insurance. And if Ford is behind Tesla and other rivals like BMW (OTCMKTS:BMWYY) and Alphabet (NASDAQ:GOOGL)(NASDAQ:GOOG) unit Waymo in electric and autonomous vehicles, its sales are going to decline over the long-term — and its profits will wither away.
It’s a case that has some logic behind it. Indeed, it’s a case I’ve made relative to F stock in the past. But a lower price and some interesting corporate moves suggest there’s hope for the future.
Ford Has Options
Even understanding — and giving some credit to — the bull case for F, I still think a bottom is coming at some point. For one, F stock is very cheap at 7x forward earnings per share (EPS). There’s a decent decline already priced in. Given that Ford cut guidance after its second-quarter report last month, that decline is here, admittedly. But it’s not as if the F stock price doesn’t already price in at least some of the risk here.
Secondly, Ford has some levers to pull — and it’s already pulled a few. It has slashed its North American sedan production, focusing instead of more profitable SUVs and trucks. That may be a risky maneuver — if gasoline prices spike again, Ford could be in trouble — but it will also allow the company to cut costs and, perhaps as importantly, capital expenditures. A slimmed-down, more focused Ford should be more profitable — potentially even with smaller sales.
Ford also has some options with its international business. General Motors exited Europe last year — but Ford has stuck with its overseas operations. Either that plan works, and Ford gets its international operations to profitability, or it doesn’t — and at some point Ford cuts bait, another move that can potentially improve margins and free up cash.
The Long-Term Outlook
And as far as autonomous vehicles go, I continue to believe that investors are being far too optimistic. The technology behind self-driving cars may be only a few years out. But that’s not the same as adoption being a few years out. Consumers are going to balk at autonomous vehicles, at least initially, whether due to fears of “robots” driving the car, belief that they can drive better (rightly or wrongly), privacy concerns, or other factors.
Meanwhile, it’s too early to write off Ford from that race altogether. CEO Jim Hackett was promoted from the division working on Ford’s plans — and the company has made that business an independent unit. Autonomous vehicles may not be any more “winner take all” than current models are. Writing off Ford altogether due to potential pressure from self-driving cars, then, seems too aggressive.
Indeed, writing off Ford at all seems too aggressive. Yet the market isn’t that far from doing exactly that. Ford has a healthy balance sheet (even accounting for pension expense) and still-strong free cash flow. Margins should improve in the next couple of years as the company’s portfolio changes — although steel and other input costs do represent a real risk. It’s still an iconic company — and still has a dominant No. 1 position in the profitable pickup truck category.
There are risks here. But there’s good news, too. And particularly of late, it seems like the market is focusing solely on those risks — and not on the fact that Ford may still be around for quite a long time to come.
As of this writing, Vince Martin has no positions in any securities mentioned.